Who, When and Where: Pottery in Florida

By: Jerald T. Milanich

Archaeologists use the variations in pottery created by Native Floridians to research and identify cultures.

About 4,500 years ago, Florida Indians living in villages in northeast and southwest Florida began making fired clay pottery. Prior to that time containers were fashioned from gourds, wood, shell, basketry and even stone. Being able to easily construct vessels of clay was an extraordinary accomplishment that would present new options for the way people cooked and stored food and used containers in general.

The clay of the earliest pottery contained plant fibers added as temper to help hold the damp clay together and prevent shattering during the firing process. Most often these fibers were from palmetto fronds or Spanish moss. Soon people began incising geometric designs or making punctations in the surface of the wet clay before the pots were fired. By 3,000 years ago, potters improved their skills, creating more sophisticated ceramics using sand and even ground shell as temper.

During the ensuing two and a half millennia groups in different areas of the state made pottery vessels in different shapes and decorated them with distinctive designs. Archaeologists use these ceramic variations to identify regional archaeological cultures, including the St. Johns culture in central and northeast Florida; Alachua of north-central Florida; Belle Glade, Caloosahatchee and Glades in south Florida; Deptford, Weeden Island and Suwannee Valley in north Florida; Swift Creek, Fort Walton and Pensacola cultures of northwest Florida; and Manasota and Safety Harbor in the central Gulf Coast region. Recognition of these regional cultures allows archaeologists to study the nature and development of the pre-European Florida Indians.

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